Bishop Spong’s book of essays treads familiar ground

Published October 1, 1999

RECENTLY THE POPE, on a rare visit to the 20th century, announced that hell is not a place. I am not sure that he would enjoy the company, but he joins scholars and teachers like Rudolph Bultmann, Hans Kung, John Spong and others, who are striving in their different ways not to make Christianity palatable to their contemporaries but to express it in terms and concepts which will give it a fighting chance among competing ideologies and world views.

[pullquote]The Bishop’s Voice is the latest from the enfant terrible of the Episcopal Church, if not of the Anglican Communion, Bishop John Spong. The book comprises 54 brief chapters, each of which has appeared in the Newark, New Jersey, diocesan paper; not surprisingly it is rather diffuse and unfocused. There is also a sense of déja vu about the last dozen chapters if one has read the Bishop’s recent, Why Christianity Must Change or Die.

The opening section of memoirs of people who have been significant in Spong’s life includes chapters on John Robinson (Bishop of Woolwich, England, in the 1960s, who wrote a controversial book, Honest to God) and Desmond Tutu, but they add little to what an informed reader will know already. Some of the chapters may have been appropriate in a diocesan paper, those for example describing the contributions of various clergy or laypersons, but frankly they are of little interest to the wider public. And I found myself almost embarrassed reading some of the more personal and family-oriented chapters.

Anyone who thinks that religion and politics are really separate in the United States will learn a lot from the seven chapters on that issue; actually the American Constitution simply says that there shall be no established church, though the religious right seem well-established in Washington.

Bishop Spong is perhaps best known for his views on homosexuality; as an advocate for inclusivity at all levels of the church for gay people, he found Lambeth 1998 depressing, not only because of the homophobic attitudes of many bishops but because of the level at which the debate was conducted. It appears to me from reports in this journal that vast sections of the Anglican episcopate are theologically and biblically illiterate – not because I hold different views but because of the way the Bible is used and the belief that to say “the church has always taught ?” is the end of the matter. Africaaners were saying that in support of apartheid as recently as a decade ago, and Bishop Spong tells us that the slogan is still in wide use – on a selective basis, of course.

Having myself given up belief in a supreme being who presides over a closed universe, I can empathize with the sense of exhilaration and freedom which pervades the last section. As I said above, the Bishop has addressed most of these themes and issues in an earlier book, but the exploration of theological and biblical issues in, of all places, a diocesan newspaper, is splendid. Would that one found more of this and less of the meld of cheerleading and fundraising that graces many of these publications.

Rev. Colin Proudman lives in and and sails out of Toronto.


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